In the 1700s, a woman who was escaping slavery managed to conceal rice, which could potentially assist her descendants.
During the 17th to 19th centuries, when enslaved Africans fled from Dutch-controlled plantations in Suriname, some women cleverly concealed rice grains in their hair. These grains would later be used to grow crops when they sought shelter in the Amazon rainforest. Today, a gene bank is dedicated to preserving Suriname’s unique rice species and helping communities prepare for the challenges of climate change.
In the inland areas of Suriname, close to Brokopondo, Albertina Adjako, a descendant of the African people known as Maroons, cautiously walks through her rice seedlings in her flip-flops. She expresses concern about the recent drought while inspecting her crops.
Due to the effects of the climate emergency being experienced on a global scale, rural farming communities are especially susceptible to severe weather conditions, including droughts and heavy precipitation.
According to a study by the World Bank in 2021, Suriname is especially vulnerable to significant risks from flooding, drought, and strong winds during severe weather events. The preservation of a diverse range of crop species and seeds can aid these communities in fulfilling their food requirements.
Certain types of rice are referred to by Adjako as “sun-loving”, while others are considered “water-loving”. Nicholaas Pinas, an expert in Surinamese rice species, explains that there are certain varieties that do well in dry weather and require less water compared to others. In a year with minimal rainfall, these varieties naturally produce a higher yield than those that need more water.
Encouraging a varied range of organisms can decrease risk and increase the ability to bounce back from outside disruptions, such as extreme weather events. According to Pinas, a doctoral student at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden and Wageningen University in the Netherlands, this approach ensures a constant food supply.
In the 17th century, the Dutch gave up control of New Amsterdam (now known as New York) to the British in return for Suriname. In the transatlantic slave trade, the Dutch transported enslaved Africans to Suriname where they were forced to work on coastal plantations, known for their cruelty and oppressive tactics. The traders also transported African crops, such as rice, on these ships.
In Suriname, the blending of African traditions resulted in the formation of a unique community and ethnic group known as the Saamaka, who are considered Maroons. Escaping from enslavement, they established hidden and self-governing settlements, developing a strong sense of identity based on their pursuit of liberty and deliberately separating themselves from the oppressive plantations. Their main source of sustenance is rice, although they also cultivate cassava and plantains.
According to Albert Aboikoni, the leader of the Saamaka people known as a granman in their creole tongue, rice was a vital crop for the Maroons’ survival. He poses the question, “After escaping from the plantations, where would one find sustenance?”
The leader tells the tale of how one of their ancestors, Ma Paanza, from the 18th century, concealed rice grains in her hair and delivered them to the newly established communities in the forest. The Saamaka tribe continues to cultivate a particular type of rice known as Ma Paanza. Aboikoni states, “[Rice] is a simple crop to grow. It has been our staple food since then and continues to be so.”
Now, centuries after escaping from the plantations, the Saamaka find their ancestral lands facing new threats, this time from climate breakdown. In 2022, Suriname bore the brunt of heavy rainfall due to the climate crisis and La Niña weather patterns, resulting in widespread flooding in the interior.
As a result of the increasing burden of heavy rainfall on the Brokopondo reservoir located in the central part of the country, the government-owned oil and gas corporation, Staatsolie, activated the sluices of the Afobaka dam. This dam was originally built to provide power for the former industrial aluminium plants operated by the American company Alcoa.
Some rice species were lost forever due to cultivated fields being flooded for an extended period of time. Adjako stated that nothing could be salvaged.
Adjako walks through the dry landscape of her kostgrond, a small area of land used for basic farming that was created by clearing the forest with traditional methods involving cutting and burning.
She chuckles in amazement as she caresses a rice plant, remarking on the vast number of rice species. She is conducting trials with different types of rice provided by Suriname’s government-funded SNRI/ADRON rice research center, but the majority of the seeds were originally sourced from the Saamaka communities and carefully conserved by Pinas and his team.
The majority of rice seeds are used as a primary food source, but certain types, like the black seeds held by Adjako, are specifically set aside for cultural events, funerals, and religious rituals. SNRI/ADRON currently holds a diverse collection of rice species in partnership with the Crop Trust, a non-profit organization focused on preserving crop diversity through seed collection and protection.
The Crop Trust has placed Surinamese seeds in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a safe agricultural storage facility located on the island of Spitsbergen in the Norwegian Arctic. The Seed Vault’s records show that 183 distinct rice samples from Suriname are currently stored there.
“Maroon rice faces a significant threat,” says Beri Bonglim, a scientist at the Crop Trust. “We saw this as an opportunity to repatriate this valuable material back to the Maroon communities and actively engage community members to regenerate them, fostering awareness about the significance of these genetic resources and the need for their conservation.”
“We aimed not only to protect Maroon rice, but also to empower local communities to take part in its conservation efforts.”
Aboikoni requested a set of community seed banks, which are expected to become operational this year. These banks will allow locals to exchange seeds, preserving crop variety and strengthening the resilience of the Saamaka community.
Jerry Tjoe Awie, the head of SNRI/ADRON, located in Nickerie near Guyana, aims to enhance the ability of communities to withstand outside pressures, specifically those connected to the climate emergency. This includes mitigating the effects of last year’s severe weather on crops, which were negatively impacted by extreme heat and drought.
In the hot and humid interior of Suriname’s Amazon, Adjako shares Tjoe Awie’s worry about the scarcity of rain in 2023. She explains, “We require sunshine for harvesting, not rain,” and chuckles before emphasizing the importance of raising awareness about the effects of the climate emergency in her community. She notes that the repercussions are evident everywhere around them, stating, “It is visible.”
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